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Knowing the rules important when flying drones

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With almost 900,000 drones registered with the federal government, unmanned aircraft systems — or UAS as they are officially called — are becoming more mainstream with businesses and hobbyists alike. That means knowing the rules and safe use of them is even more important, local experts said.

Sgt. Michael Fry, one of six certified pilots with the Roswell Police Department, said it’s important for new drone owners to practice flying in a sparsely populated area where it’s less likely to cause damage. Owners should also go straight to the source — the Federal Aviation Administration — to learn the rules rather than relying on someone else’s interpretation of them, he said. The rules can be found at www.faa.gov/uas.

“Read the owner’s manual, read the literature that’s out there from viable sources. Go to the FAA, read some of the stuff, follow the rules as best you can. And then be courteous and be understanding of people,” Fry said.

The Roswell Police Department has two drones, Fry said. They are most often used to document crime or accident scenes and for search operations, such as when a man being held at the Chaves County Detention Center escaped the facility in early October.

“With the escapee, the drones were out and they were able to cover much larger areas than obviously on foot would,” he said.

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“Some of the crime scene documentation, we’re able to put them up in the air and get good aerial video, aerial photography of major crime scenes, major accidents that span out several yards or even city blocks,” Fry said.

“We’re able to capture that much better with the drone in the air than we would on the ground or even using a ladder from the fire department like we’ve done in the past,” he said.

Fry said the RPD has not had problems with privately owned drones interfering with department use or investigations, nor have there been many complaints about public use of them.

There are no local or state laws specific to drone use. Drones are considered to be aircraft, no matter what their size, and are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, Mike Lanfor, owner of AirPlay Media and Adventure Services of Roswell, said.

Lanfor is a certified remote pilot for UAS, an instrument-rated commercial pilot and ground instructor. He and his wife, Jenna, operate AirPlay Media and operate drones as part of the business, shooting footage for projects such as real estate, energy companies and movies.

He is also a member of the National FAA Safety Team, known as FAAST, which promotes safety in aviation.

Lanfor said while FAA officials have been to Roswell over the years to investigate violations or unsafe practices with drones, mostly those instances have resulted in educational opportunities rather than fines.

Committing a crime while a using a drone — such as damaging property, injuring a person or invading privacy — would be handled under existing laws, Fry said.

“If somebody intentionally flew a drone into a person to injure them, it could be an aggravated assault and battery, and we would deal with that and let the FAA kind of piggyback or give them a copy of our investigation,” Fry said.

Lanfor said part of the reason there have not been many violations that resulted in fines is because the technology is so new. As drones become more popular, laws continue to evolve and the enforcement is also, he said.

“The FAA is starting to get really serious about this. So people just need to be prudent and understand that the law does apply and you can be held accountable if you’re not doing it properly,” Lanfor said.

One of the most important things drone operators should know is the difference between commercial use and recreational use, he said. Under the FAA rules, a drone operator does not have to receive money for drone use to be considered commercial.

As an example, Lanfor said if a drone operator used it to take photos or video of a relative’s car dealership and allowed the photos or videos to be used in advertising for the dealership, that would be considered a commercial operation, even if the drone operator received no payment.

“That is a commercial use because it furthers the business,” Lanfor said.

“The same applies to a church, or your school or a nonprofit organization because they’re considered business entities,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be called a business, but it has to further somebody else’s agenda or organization or event or whatever.”

Commercial operators must be at least 16 years old and certified by passing an FAA Knowledge Test.

“If you are flying a drone and you’re not a commercial certified drone pilot, you’re not only putting yourself at liability from being fined by the FAA, but you also are putting that business at risk,” he said.

All drones that weigh between 0.55 pound and 55 pounds must also be registered with the FAA. Registration can be completed through the FAA website and the registration number must be visible on the drone. For drones that weigh more than 55 pounds, the drone owner becomes registered with the FAA and can use the same registration number on multiple drones.

 

Having an unregistered drone can result in civil charges with fines up to $27,500 and criminal charges with fines up to $250,000 and prison time.

Knowing when and where to fly a drone is also necessary, Lanfor said. FAA rules stipulate the drone pilot must keep the drone within sight at all times and must fly below 400 feet.

There are also certain airspaces where drones are prohibited without special licenses. One of those areas is the Roswell Air Center, and its prohibited space covers much more than just the air center itself.

“The southern half of the city of Roswell lies within controlled airspace for the Roswell airport,” Lanfor said. “So people who want to fly in their own front yard legally can’t do that. If you live anywhere within that controlled airspace, you not allowed to fly your drone without written permission from the FAA.”

Getting that permission can be difficult, he said. One way to do it is through the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, or LAANC, available online.

The FAA has a smartphone app, B4UFLY, that shows restricted airspace.

The FAA might also establish temporary flight restrictions, or TFRs, for some areas such as wildfires.

Recreational flyers are not allowed to fly drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds over people or moving vehicles. Flying at night is allowed for both recreational and commercial users if the drone has lights that are visible for at least 3 miles.

Lanfor and Fry suggested one area for Roswell drone owners to fly is the old municipal airport north of Cielo Grande Recreational Area.

“There is an actual remote model air park. There is still a sign there on one of the old runways on the north side of the field,” Lanfor said.

But he noted even in that area, pilots need to be aware of other aircraft. The area is under the approach to one of the Roswell Air Center runways and medical helicopters fly over the area as well, Lanfor said.

“If they’re under 400 feet, they’re not going to be a problem to the airport, but they do need to watch for helicopters,” he said.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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